This article is one of three which explore the immediate aftermath of a death in the family.  It is based on my own recent experience and I hope you find it helps to explain what happens when someone dies and some of the immediate decisions that need to be taken.

Day 1

At 6.45 on the 16th January I received a phone call at my home in Gloucestershire from my mum’s nursing home in Lancashire. The home rang to say that my mum wasn’t well and asked for my permission for them to refer her to hospital if her condition was to worsen during the night. My 88 year old mum was suffering from Alzheimers but had also had Leukaemia for many years.

I had visited her the previous week and knew that she had developed a chest infection so, when they asked the question, I gave my permission for her to be admitted to hospital if required and the call ended.

Only ten minutes later I received another call from the nursing home, this time from her GP. He stated that he was surprised that I had given my permission for a hospital referral in view of her condition, he said that he thought that a medical intevention was not appropriate and it was better to continue with her “End of Life Care”. I was quite shocked as this phrase had never been used before in my conversations with the nursing home.

I informed them that I was due to visit in a couple of days over the following weekend, but the GP stated that, in his opinion, I need to see her more quickly than that.

I immediately left for the 180 mile drive North.

I arrived at the nursing home at 11.45 pm and was taken to see my mum. She was unconcious with very shallow breathing but was clearly very calm. I was left alone with her.

A couple of days before, as part of my research for Simply Dead I had viewed a video produced by Kathryn Mannix @drkathrynmannix  which is available on the… #IMHO

This video is very moving but certainly helped me to better understand the final moments of my mum’s life and treasure the final moments that I had with her. Death, like birth, is a purely natural process and should be seen as a gentle and peaceful ending to a very full and varied life.  Mum died at 12.19 am.

The nurses who were at the home commented that in their experience it wasn’t unusual for many of their patients to slip into unconciousness, often for hours, and only finally die within minutes of the arrival of their loved ones.

1am, back to reality.  “Could you please advise who will be taking your mother away?”  This was the question I received from the night manager of the nursing home, “I am afraid that she will not be able to stay here until morning”

This came as a shock, after a four hour drive I hadn’t had chance to contact my stepfather who himself was only recently out of hospital and could not be disturbed during the night due to his condition.  I had no idea who he wanted to arrange the funeral. Google was my only option so I chose the funeral director closest to my parents’ home.  They arrived at 3.30am and my Mum was taken away … the funeral conveyor belt had started!

Day 2

At 8am the next morning I met with my stepfather to share the sad news with him and very quickly our society’s established process for dealing with a death took over. A series of appointments quickly filled Day 2.

It transpired that over ten years before my parents had taken out a Funeral Plan with an insurance company.  Unfortunately the document itself which covered the plan couldn’t be found but my stepfather remembered the insurance company that they had chosen and another quick Google search put us in contact.

I called the insurance company who confirmed that they held the plan and incredibly the funeral director named on the plan was the same director that had taken my mum from the nursing home the night before!  I am not sure what would have happened if this had not been the case.

At 2pm the same day the funeral director came to meet us and to inform us what was actually covered by the plan. My parents had chosen to have a cremation and had also agreed the type of service that they would have preferred. Unfortunately they had lost the notes they had written down and their preferred music and hymns. More importantly since taking out the plan their views had changed and they now wished to have a humanist service rather than a traditional religious service.

Their funeral plan would cover the cost of the cremation and the humanist’s fees; it would also cover the cost of a newspaper announcement, the order of service (depending on the type chosen), and one funeral car only.  There was also a choice of coffins which were included in the plan.

Additional costs that would still need to be covered included flowers, post service food/refreshments and venue hire.

We were offered two dates and times for the cremation.

We were asked to write the message for the local newspaper, choose the layout for the Order of Service booklet, choose the florist and number of cars required.

By 3pm within 15 hours of my Mum’s death the 29th January at 11.30 am was chosen for the cremation, a humanist preacher recommended by the Funeral Director was agreed together with a florist and music for the service itself.

As my stepfather was housebound and receiving care himself, before leaving the following day to return home, I visited a local hotel to book a venue for post cremation refreshments and tried to arrange an appointment to register the death.  A cremation cannot take place without a death certificate. There were no appointments available locally to register the death, but I could have an appointment the following day in Preston which was on my way home. The funeral director made the appointment for me.

Lessons learnt:-

  1. Be aware of any funeral plans which are in existence, where are they and what exactly is covered and if any specific funeral director is mentioned in the plan.
  2. Make sure there is a funeral plan in place especially if a traditional solution is sought.
  3. Have conversations about the type of service, cremation or burial, traditional or non traditional
  4. Discuss what music is to be played
  5. Discuss who should be advised of your death and who you would like to be there.
  6. Consider venues for after the service, what is the theme if any ?
  7. Who should speak at your service?
  8. What would you say at your own funeral if you could be there!
  9. How long would you like the service to last? you do have a say in this, but more of that later.
  10. Let people know where your Will is.

If you need to start a conversation about funeral wishes with one of your loved ones, why not download our “My Wishes” template to help them think through the issues and document their choices.